Without SATs the sky won’t fall in!

The National Education Union’s first conference in April voted to ballot on boycotting SATs. The next day, Jeremy Corbyn promised that a future Labour government would abolish them along with the proposed baseline test. This has caused excitement but also some anxiety.

It is hardly surprising that the prospect of ending SATs has worried some parents and teachers. After all, younger teachers, and almost all parents, have always lived under the SATs regime. SATs are part of the landscape – it’s like looking out of your window at a rubbish tip. It’s hard to imagine what schools will be like without them.

Communicating with parents

Parents are entitled to good information on their children’s progress, but SATs don’t provide it. The scores depend on how intensively children have been drilled – and how much curriculum they have missed by practising for them. The time pressure is so great that more depends on the children’s speed than how much they know.

Parents certainly don’t learn much from a SAT score. The teacher who has been with a child all year can give parents a richer sense of their strengths and challenges than the SATs. They can talk to parents about a wide range of work and their observations.

Naturally, when SATs go, some teachers will feel insecure about whether their expectations are high enough. There are easy solutions:

1) Moderation

Teachers from different schools can get together to look at a sample of children’s work. They will discuss what to expect at age 11, what are the signs of a good performance in reading or maths, how much they need worry about particular misunderstandings.

2) Sample tests

A variety of tests and assessments are available, and can be used flexibly as required. A teacher who needs to check that her expectations are reasonable can get four or five children in the class to do a maths test and a few more to do a reading test.

Tests which are flexible and fit for purpose

Dozens of tests are available from publishers and research units. Unfortunately much of their current use is driven by headteachers’ SATs anxiety: they are used indiscriminately on all children once a term. But these tests can be used very flexibly, according to circumstances and children’s needs:

  • Some cover a range of topics and align with national standards.
  • Some are designed to identify gaps in the children’s knowledge at the end of a unit of work, for example on decimals or geometry.
  • Many are diagnostic, to show teachers which children need extra help in a specific skill.
  • Some are marked automatically by computer to save teachers time.
  • Some computer-based tests are adaptive: the difficulty of the next question is adjusted if a child gets too many wrong or is finding them too easy.
  • There are even tests for parents to use at home if they are particularly worried about their child’s progress.

One of the most experienced publishers provides an assessment bank so that a teacher can make up her own test to focus on a particular part of the curriculum: 7500 different questions, each providing feedback on a child’s strengths and difficulties.

Without SATs, teachers will be able to use these assessments flexibly and purposefully to help shape their future teaching.

Assessment is more than a score

We must also remember that assessment is not just about scores or grades. Other kinds of assessment can provide richer feedback on a child’s learning.

One proven method is the portfolio. They are used all over the world with children of all ages.

  • With the teacher’s help, children choose five or six pieces of work they are proud of.
  • The portfolio forms the basis of a conversation between the teacher, pupil and parents. Samples from the previous year can be used to show the progress made.
  • The portfolio can then be handed to the next year’s class teacher, or Year 7 teachers.

Portfolios don’t mean filling wheelbarrows with work. They needn’t increase teachers’ workload. They do provide much richer information to parents and boost children’s morale.

When SATs go, the sky won’t fall in.

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